Democratic Education in a Time of Terror | IDEA

Democratic Education in a Time of Terror

Posted by Dana Bennis on Apr 18, 2013 - 11:32 AM

This is a guest post by Matthew Knoester, a National Board Certified Teacher and former teacher at the Mission Hill School, and currently Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Evansville. Matthew recently wrote a book about the Mission Hill School, entitled Democratic Education in Practice: Inside the Mission Hill School (Teachers College Press, 2012) and edited a book called International Struggles for Critical Democratic Education (Peter Lang, 2012).


The events that took place in Boston on Monday leave so many of us grasping for words. Who could have done this? What does this mean? What should we do? Adults and children alike wonder about many of the same questions. And we grieve…for the dead…for the wounded…for the dark cloud over what has been and should be a joyous occasion in Boston. The outpourings of care and connection, from vigils and prayers, to the work of doctors and nurses, to the many law enforcement officials and others who continue to contribute ideas and evidence on how to solve this crime, are attempts to make what is broken whole, although we know we cannot bring back those who have been lost.

I can’t help but be reminded of another time, when I was a 4th and 5th grade teacher at the Mission Hill School in Boston on the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. It began as a normal Tuesday, the second week of the school year. I happened to step out of the classroom to make a copy in the office and casually asked the school’s office manager, Marla, how she was doing. The look on her face was bleak. “Not well,” she said, “two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center.” At that point, that was all she knew, so I returned to the classroom. I conveyed the news to the student teacher with whom I was working, Tori. Students were quietly working on a variety of projects. We let them work as we discussed our options. We finally decided that we wanted to be the ones to tell the students, not let them find out on the schoolyard. So I made an announcement and reassured the students that they were safe, and people were working to figure out what happened. Many questions were asked, the same questions that are being asked today, “Who could have done this? What does this mean? What should we do?” I tried to answer the questions the best that I knew how, with very limited information. We listened to the radio. Without TV students did not seem to think it was a life-changing event and hardly brought it up again, until the following day.

On Wednesday, students were filled with television images and news reports. They drew pictures that day expressing their emotions. One student in the class had an uncle who lived in New York who was missing. But it was that evening that I realized that adults were taking this news very differently than children. There happened to be a Family Night scheduled for that evening and many of my students’ parents came to the school. Although we were scheduled to talk about the thematic curriculum planned for the fall, parents wanted to talk with each other and with me about what had happened the day before. We circled up and shared what we thought and hoped for our children. What was clear from that moment, and what is perhaps different from today, is that the adults knew, or at least suspected, that this event meant our country would be going to war. Children had not made that connection, at least not yet.

We will see how this week’s events play out. So much is yet to be learned about what happened. I have hope that this is one isolated set of events, not the panoply of events and retributions, and spiraling repercussions that began on September 11, 2001. And let us not forget that we are still at war in Afghanistan. That Americans, Afghanis, Iraqis, and Pakistanis continue to be killed nearly every day in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan. But I know a major reason I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 was because he was against the Iraq war from before it began (although drone strikes in Pakistan are not consistent with who I thought Obama was). Let us hope whatever happened on Monday does not lead to further bloodshed.

In retrospect, the 2001-2002 school year was a hard one, as compared with other years. It is only dawning on me now that part of that struggle may have had to do with the deep uncertainty and fear that so many of us, young and old, felt after 9/11. So much about creating a classroom and school community is about creating a sense of safety—a deep connection and sense of trust—so students are able to step out of their comfort zones and take risks, for parents to trust that the school has their child’s best interests in mind. I’m not sure if I/we accomplished that during the 2001-2002 school year. I hope the events that took place on Monday do not rob the sense of safety that children need to feel in order to learn and take risks this year.

The sixth chapter of "A Year at Mission Hill" offered another beautiful illustration of the many pieces of trust and safety I listed above coming together. Toward the beginning of the clip, students are shown taking risks and standing before groups of their peers, teaching each other. Teachers and the principal are shown discussing with parents the education of their children. But, crucially, it is not just the teachers telling parents what they think, the film shows staff members listening and learning from parents. Jenerra Williams delivers a key point when she says, referring to a parent, “She trusts that we have his best interest at heart, and so that means we’re going to get from her everything we need: cooperation, trust, communication, all that.” It’s not always easy to build that trust among adults—let alone between adults and children and among children—but that is essential to a safe and supportive learning environment.

In these days of radically violated trust it is helpful to remember that while it can be lost so easily, it is worth building and rebuilding, even against the odds, although it may seem nearly impossible at times.

Leave a comment on Facebook and join the conversation.